Few productions are more joyous than the National Center of Afro-American Artists’ “Black Nativity.” From the moment the cast’s nearly 50 adults and children march down the aisles of the Paramount Center singing “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” lighted only by the candles they hold in their hands, the hair on the back of your neck starts to stand up, and it doesn’t stop until the final solo of the recessional fades.
While the story of the Nativity is rooted in the Christian tradition, Hughes’s gift, through story, poetry, and song, is to fuse that religious foundation with universal themes of hope, rebirth, connection, and community.
This year marks the 44th annual production of “Black Nativity,” and even though the Voices of Black Persuasion and Children of Black Persuasion seem to be fewer in number than in years past, they deliver lush vocal performances and some thrilling solos, creating a powerful sound that fills the Paramount.
After the fanfare and processional “Go Tell It On the Mountain,” company members line up on risers as the story of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem unfolds with the help of narration, with one of four performers stepping into the roles at various performances. The music includes familiar gospel songs, including the glorious “My Way Is Cloudy,” “Christ Is Born,” and “Rise Up Shepherd and Follow,” along with traditional carols “What Child Is This?” and “O Come All Ye Faithful,” among others.
The highlight of the show every year is the stunning dance of the pregnant Mary, which is part labor and birthing pains and part exultant expression of new life. Punctuated by the accompaniment of two conga players, George Howard’s choreography is expressive and balletic, offering opportunities for graceful lifts by Joseph and urgent, athletic moves by Mary. In the performance I saw, a live baby was placed in the manger, and the vision of those little arms reaching up was extraordinarily moving.
The three soloists who sing “A Mighty Day” — bass, baritone, and tenor — prime the audience for the exultant “Christ is Born,” in which audience members enthusiastically clap along and the soloists exhort them to “tell somebody” the good news about the birth of the baby Jesus.
The performance culminates with the arrival of the Three Wise Men and finally the recessional “Away in a Manger,” with the company exiting once again with those candles in hand. The sumptuous accompaniment for the gospel singers is a simple band made up of piano, organ, bass guitar, and percussion.
What is so enjoyable at this production of “Black Nativity,” whether you are seeing it for the first time or attend every year, is its refreshing embrace of community, the wide-ranging collection of talent onstage, and the diverse collection of people in the audience. While there is clearly a sense of reverence for the Christian story, there is also a celebration of the possibility of rebirth for all.
Terry Byrne can be reached at email@example.com.